Being the Parent of a “Problem Child”

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Recently, the perfectly wonderful mother of “Sam”, an adorable, intelligent, but quirky 8-yo child, told me a sad story. The mother of another boy in Sam’s class appeared at her house with a list of alleged “bad things” Sam had done to this child. The list of Sam’s misdeeds included crimes such as pulling the other child off a climbing structure and calling him stupid. Since Sam had described his version of some of these incidents to his mother, she could imagine what had been going on. Desperate to play with the boys in his class, Sam would sometimes get frustrated when his overtures were rejected. Sam, who had trouble regulating his motor activity and attention, could be impulsive and grab or push, and he would sometimes appear to ignore another person when he was focusing on something else. The other mother told Sam’s mother to tell Sam not to try to play with her son any more.

Of course, Sam’s mother was heart broken for Sam. She was also lonely herself, feeling increasingly alienated from the mothers of Sam’s classmates. When Sam was younger, he was sometimes invited on play dates and usually included in birthday parties, but now that he was older and his behavior continued to present problems, the invitations were increasingly scarce. She felt that the other mothers avoided her at pickup time, as if they were afraid that she or Sam might suggest a get together. She envied their happy chatter as they greeted their children and made plans. Pickup time for her was always laced with apprehension – what bad news would she hear today?

She readily acknowledged her own impatience with Sam when he would not “listen” to her, when she had to ask him multiple times to do something, and when he would stop in the middle of a task like getting dressed and become immersed in another activity. Sam’s teacher suggested that he might have ADHD and medication might help, but she and Sam’s father were reluctant to “medicate” Sam. At this point, however, she was willing to consider anything. She hated it when she lost her temper at Sam and yelled at him. It made her feel like a bad mother, especially when she saw his crestfallen expression and knew he realized that he had made a mistake. She worried that he was beginning to think of himself as a “bad boy”.

Leaving aside for the moment the question of ADHD and whether Sam could benefit from medication, I would like to focus on his mother’s experience and the intolerance of the other mother. First of all, let me say that it is understandable and even essential to protect your child, and if he perceives himself as being bullied by another child (pulled off a climbing structure, called “stupid”, not listened to when insists he “needs space”) a parent will naturally take her own child’s “side”. But here is where that mother is both failing to “imagine the mind of her child” and also missing a teachable moment of great importance to her own son.

The other child, let us call “Ted”, is upset with Sam. Most likely, though, he is upset for many reasons. The typical, and more general reasons include the fact that Sam “isn’t listening to ‘no’”, and he is intruding on Ted’s space, which most people find stressful. We do not know the other unique reasons that Ted has to be angry with Sam, but there are many potential ones. For example, maybe Ted has a younger sibling towards whom Ted has intensely ambivalent feelings and who always wants to play with his “big brother”. Or, Ted and his mother have generated a pattern in which one of the main ways Mother shows her love for Ted is to (over) protect him; maybe his father is somewhat distant and has been unable to fill that protective role for him. Or, perhaps there is marital conflict in Ted’s family that pulls Ted and his mother together in order to give both of them comfort since comfort from his father is not forthcoming either to his son or to his wife. Or, maybe Ted’s mother herself feels victimized in her life and expects her child to have the same fate. There are many, many possible reasons, but even without knowing them in this particular case, we do know that Sam’s behavior is not the whole story.

If Ted’s mother just goes with the simple and concrete reason (Sam is bullying him), without trying to imagine what else is going on in Ted’s mind, she will not be able to respond to him in a growth enhancing way; she will only “side with” the more infantile “meaning” Ted makes of his distress. She will lose the amazing opportunity to help him move forward in his development – to help him become able to “imagine the mind” of a peer.

In the preschool where I sometimes work, the teachers constantly try to support the children in taking this step. First they validate the offended child’s (let’s make a new child, named “Jane”) feelings and comfort her. “Of course you got upset when ‘Joe’ – another name we made up – grabbed away your toy!” But then the teachers almost always take it one step further. Teacher: “Could we ask Joe why he grabbed it?” Jane: “Joe, why did you grab it?” Joe: “Because I needed for my castle.” Jane: “But I was using it.” Joe: “Oh.” Jane: “And it was scary when you grabbed it.” Joe: “Oh.” Teacher: “Joe, Would you like to say you’re sorry to Jane?” Joe: “Sorry.” Teacher: “Jane, does that make you feel better?” Jane: “Yes.” Look at how much learning can take place in this kind of exchange, and compare it with what Ted learns when his mother rescues him and vilifies his peer.

Even more, the black and white attitude that Ted’s mother takes in making Sam a “bad guy” also misses an opportunity to teach Ted about shades of gray, a crucial lesson in lifelong learning that builds flexibility and compassion – both for the other child and also for himself.

I will write more about Sam’s mother’s experience and the challenges she faces in a subsequent blog.

Read this blog in Spanish.

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